Cancer screenings are typically a routine part of any medical visit, whether you are going for a general physical or seeing a specialized doctor. In fact, if you visit a dentist regularly, you may be going for a cancer screening without even knowing it.
How so? During general appointments, dentists look for signs of oral cancer. Of the roughly 50,000 Americans who will be diagnosed with oral cancer this year, most of those cases will be discovered by a dentist.
Why is this a big deal? Because if you’re seeing your dentist at least every six months, as recommended, you’re likely in contact with them more often than your regular doctor. Because of this, a trip to the dentist can help you detect oral cancer early – which can prevent the cancer from spreading.
Let’s go over how your dentist does this.
What Causes Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer can be caused by a lot of different things, and certain behaviors can increase your chances of getting oral cancer. In fact, close to half of all oral cancer deaths are attributed to smoking.
More generally, smokers, heavy drinkers, and people who eat a diet without many fruits and vegetables are known to have a higher risk for developing oral cancer. Any sort of tobacco product, whether it is consumed in cigarettes or not, also can be a factor.
Recently, medical researchers have noticed a trend in HPV and cancer. HPV is a sexually transmitted disease that can be spread through oral sex, and is linked to cancer around the genital areas as well as the oral cavity.
Men are also twice as likely to get oral cancer than women, but this does not excuse women from going to the dentist for a cancer screening.
Where Do Dentists Look for Oral Cancer?
Oral cancer doesn’t just affect the inside of your mouth or gums. Oral cancer is considered a “head and neck” cancer and makes up 85% of all head and neck cancer cases. (Head and neck cancer does not include brain cancer, which is a separate category.)
Because of this, dentists may look around the gums, teeth, throat, and around the head and neck area for signs of the disease. However, it’s worth noting that cancer may develop anywhere. If you are concerned about possible signs in different areas of the body, you should reach out to a specialized medical professional.
When Do Dentists Look for Oral Cancer?
Your dentist looks for signs of oral cancer at every visit throughout the appointment. Dentists check for oral cancer by examining the oral cavity and feeling for lumps around the throat and neck area.
If your dentist does not bring up that they are looking for signs, you don’t have to worry. Even mentioning cancer can make patients uncomfortable, so often dentists will not bring up the subject until there is reason to worry.
What are the Signs of Oral Cancer?
The signs of oral cancer include the following:
- Sores that are not healing
- Sores that are quick to bleed
- Gum tissue with an unusual color
- Hard lumps
- Eroding area
- Unusual pain or difficulty chewing or speaking
It’s important to note that these signs could also be symptoms of a different affliction or illness. If you do notice any of the above symptoms, report them to your dentist so they can take a look and determine whether you need further testing.
Those last two words are important: “further testing.” Brush tests may help them tell whether a sore is cancerous or something else, but you will not get the results immediately because dentists cannot diagnose cancer during an initial screening. Instead, what will likely happen is that they will put you in contact with a medical professional who can conduct further tests.
How Can Dentists Help Prevent Oral Cancer?
Education and regular screenings are the best way to prevent any type of cancer, including oral cancer. While we have briefly touched on the causes of oral cancer, a dentist can speak further about how to reduce your risk and live a cancer-free life with advice on proper dental hygiene and diet choices.
Additionally, if a dentist can detect signs of cancer early, you may be able to get treatment before the cancer spreads. The chance of surviving oral cancer is significantly higher when the cancer is diagnosed before it spreads to other parts of the body.
The early cure rate for oral cancer is 90%, but this drops down to 60% after five years of treatment if the cancer has already spread. In addition to quitting smoking and eating a healthier diet, the best way to prevent oral cancer is to routinely see a dentist.
Make an Appointment with a South Florida Dentist Today
Dentist visits should be an essential routine part of maintaining your health. In addition to cancer screenings, checkups can give your teeth a deep clean, and help to find cavities, determine the needs for root canals, and identify other issues in the mouth.
If you haven’t been in a while, make an appointment with a South Florida dentist today.